Critical Mass

NBCC France Correspondent: Maureen McLane

By Maureen McLane

This NBCC correspondent is currently in Paris, an interesting (and lovely!) situation for thinking about all things “national,””bookish,” and “critical.”

Last week our blog referred to the controversy going on here about “Francophonie” and the status of non-French-born writers vis-à-vis “French” literature. Over the past weeks I've been more oriented to the first volume of Proust's “A la recherche du temps perdu,” and I'm still working with the Scott Moncrieff/Kilmartin translation, the French Pléiade edition, though I look forward to reading Lydia Davis's acclaimed translation of the first volume.

There is a peculiar pleasure in walking down the street and seeing a restaurant Proust invokes –Lapérouse, for example; or in visiting the marvelous Bois de Boulogne, where in the novel MadameSwann strolls in all her elegance. Perhaps this is an unsavory form of hi-lo slumming, or a confusion of literature and life. (Can Proust change your life? Hmmm.) Nevertheless. And then too on a recent trip to the Louvre I found myself looking at paintings and finding in several portraits the likenesses of friends and acquaintances: it is a habit of Charles Swann, the besotted refined aesthete and hero of “Swann in Love,” to see in various acquaintances, friends, and lovers the images of paintings he knows and savors. Thus Madame Swann, whom he first loves in her somewhat disreputable incarnation as Odette de Crécy, conjures for him an image painted by Alessandro de Mariano, “whom one shrinks from giving his more popular surname”: Botticelli. And while we are to understand that Odette is extraordinarily beautiful and alluring, of a Botticellian”type,” there is tremendous and characteristically Proustian irony in that Swann usually doesn't desire that “type” of woman: his love for Odette is paradoxical, inexplicable, even or especially to himself: as he exclaims in the marvelous last lines of”Swann in Love”:


“To think that I've wasted years of my life, that I've longed to die, that
I've experienced my greatest love, for a woman who didn't appeal to me, who
wasn't even my type!”


Other observations: there is a lively Anglophone community here, with regular readings and other events announced in poet/correspondent Jen Dick's monthly newsletter. It is hard not to marvel at the privileged status books still hold here – ardently discussed in every newspaper, with special articles devoted to this or that writer, this or that new book. It has occurred to me to wonder whether I will come across Marjane Satrapi, creator of the brilliant “Persepolis” books; or Edmund White, author most recently of the terrific “My Lives.” Would I recognize them from their author photos?

Virtual connectivity means you never have to leave your national media home, for good and for ill – you can read any newspaper on line, any blog, any specialist website. Thus I encountered Stephen Elliott's disquieting latest on line, and was pushed again to consider the strange power of his carefully affectless prose. Elliott recently published the book “My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up,”and this gives you a fair idea of the scenarios this scrupulously attentive writer presents. Elliott has sustained intriguingly multiple projects, pitilessly exploring the logic of so-called sexual perversion, the desire to be hurt, the longing to feel and to connect enacted in elaborately extreme yet psychologically persuasive vignettes. This anatomy of brutally sexualizedmelancholy coexists with his trenchant political reporting. The two strands come together in his essay “The Score,” featured in the March 2007 issue of “The Believer.” It is not yet clear to me whether Elliot is a symptom or a diagnoser of the pervasive pornification of America. Whatever his work is, it's something worth attending to.

–Maureen N. McLane, NBCC Board Member